Art and Technology of the Ancient World

The capacity to produce art and technology is an ingrained human characteristic. Identifying the points at which this ability emerged in different locations is a critical question for archaeologists because it marks a pivotal instance of cognitive achievement in human history—an unlocked potential for a deeper relationship between individuals and their surroundings through shared concepts beyond the physical (Merchant). Analyses of two locations, namely a series of caves in Indonesia and a site at Chaco Canyon, demonstrate how past symbols and technologies can provide insight into the workings of ancient cultures.

Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia, contains a slew of deep caves. Within them, painted on walls in charcoal and ocher, a red, chalk-like material, are artifacts of ancient minds. Hand prints and drawings of animals such as deer, roosters, and dogs point to a culture which, as innovative dating methods revealed, existed tens of thousands of years ago (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Ocher Painting of an Animal

One cave in particular, known as Leang Tempuseng, contains stencils of handprints which date to over 35,000 years ago. Before this, the earliest recorded human made figurative art was in France and Spain. The examples in Indonesia challenge this early understanding. They also raise a question: despite the distance between the paintings, they share unmistakable physical characteristics. Two theories exist as to why. First, some have proposed that similarities in lifestyle produce similarities in expression. Others, however, find the explanation of their shared appearance as  coincidental to be unlikely. Instead, they propose that human artistic abilities emerged in Africa and as human beings spread out across other continents, so did those techniques. Although they may have altered slightly over time, the unified starting point gave early art a recognizable look. (Merchant). Either way, the findings in Sulawesi are crucial—a clear instance in ancient time when humans interacted with the world in a way beyond the physical.

In Chaco Canyon, a large and flat rock formation juts up from the earth. Within this site, known as Fajada Butte, exists a marvel of technology. Upon a flat sandstone cliff face, two engraved symbols with precise spiral appearances face outward towards the sun (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon

At particular times during the year, specifically the solstices and equinoxes, the sun casts certain patterns of light, or daggers, to indicate the exact date (HAO). In this way, it works as a remarkably elegant calendar. The site was discovered in 1977 and attributed to the Anasazi people of New Mexico. In 1989 the site was altered very slightly due to erosion, possibly as a result of public activity, and no longer works as it did in the past (Exploratorium). Still, the Sun Dagger is touted as an achievement for its simplicity in design yet precision in function.

In spite of boundaries in culture and time, the widespread presence of ways to express, document, or explain the world functions not only as a glimpse into past cultures, but also as a reminder of a shared humanity.

New Content:

The use of symbols in archaeology:

Robb, John E. 1998. “The Archaeology of Symbols.” Annual Review of Archaeology, Vol. 27, pp. 329-346.


Cave paintings in France:

Reference List:

Merchant, Jo. Jan. 2016. “A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World.” Smithsonian.

Pauketat, Timothy. 2009. Cahokia. New York City: Penguin Publishing Group.

“Chaco Canyon.” Exploratorium.


  1. “The Sun Dagger.” High Altitude Observatory.

Figure 1: 2019. BBC.

Figure 2: Ancient-Origins.

Reconstructing past ways of life through burial analysis

Rituals relating to the dead are a nearly universal cultural practice with remnants appearing across the globe. To take advantage of the information these sites provide, archaeologists employ a technique known as burial analysis—the excavation and interpretation of deceased bodies and artifacts from places of burial. The preliminary steps of burial analysis involve identifying the method of burial (the condition of the deceased or the structures within the site), the number of bodies in the unit, and the presence of material goods. By taking these factors into account and tracing their change over time, archaeologists can come to informed conclusions about a culture such as perceptions of an afterlife, cultural merging or displacement, and basic social constructions  (Alekshin, V.A. et al. 1983, 3-4). Taking a look at examples of burial analysis, specifically sites from Russia and the United States, helps illustrate the immense applications of the technique to piece together features of ancient cultures.

Kalmykia is a region in the Southwestern tip of Russia between the Black and Caspian seas. Grassland makes up much of the region, but it is far from empty: beneath the ground in certain locations lies a vast burial site and, within it, clues to evolving lifestyles from thousands of years ago. 

In this region, researchers were able to identify two distinct groups, the Yamnaya, herders, and the Katacomb, dual herders and agriculturalists (Shishlina 2001). The former developed during the first half of the 3rd millennium BC and constructed burial mounds mostly along the coastal section of the Caspian region, but also along the highland region. Researchers believe this pattern coincides with seasonal movement, providing evidence for a mobile lifestyle. Examining buried materials suggests the Yamnaya were engaged in a system of trade with the southern Caucasus region (Shishlina 2001, 23). 

The latter group emerged in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC and appear to have been more advanced than the Yamnaya in trade, social organization, and methods of burial (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Burial Site in Kalmykia

Like the Yamnaya, this new group lived a highly mobile lifestyle, even more so than their predecessors, and engaged in trade with southern regions (Shishlina 2001, 26). Conclusions made about this region rest on one of the tenets of burial analysis: distinctions in culture are reflected by treatment of the dead.

Another example of burial analysis is the Hopewell Mound Group of southern Ohio which dates back to two thousand years ago. The mounds were first documented in 1848 during a survey by Squier and Davis—American Archaeologists of the time (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Hopewell Mound Group, Etching by Squier and Davis.

In the past, the mounds were enclosed within an enormous perimeter (thousands of feet on each side) and contained the largest known mound of the Hopewell culture. The scale of the mounds and the artifacts in them are among the astounding finds in North America (NPS 2021).

When implemented and interpreted with precision, burial analysis merits its status as a valuable technique to reconstruct the past.


New content:

Legislation around burial sites:

Burial analysis of a site in Egypt:


Reference list:

Alekshin, V. A., Brad Bartel, Alexander B. Dolitsky, Antonio Gilman, Philip L. Kohl, D. Liversage, and Claude Masset. Apr., 1983. “Burial Customs as an Archaeological Source [and Comments].” Current Anthropology , Vol. 24, (No. 2): pp. 137-149.

Shishlina, Natalia. 2001. “Early Herders of the Eurasian Steppe.” Expedition Magazine, Vol. 43, (No. 1): pp, 21-28.

Dec. 12, 2021 “Hopewell Mound Group.” National Park Service.

Figure 1: 2001. Katacomb Burial Excavations.

Figure 2: Squier, Ephraim G, and Edwin H. Davis. 1848. HMG etching.